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Tai Chi Moves Keep Seniors Moving

Ancient Chinese exercise helps muscles, balance, study shows

TUESDAY, May 15 (HealthScout) -- The slow, graceful movements of Tai Chi could be just what the doctor ordered for the over-65 set.

"I know from my Chinese background that there are centuries of evidence of the health benefits of Tai Chi," says Fuzhong Li, a research scientist at the Oregon Research Institute and lead author of the study. "However, until recently, most of these benefits have not been scientifically evaluated in the Western hemisphere."

Tai Chi is derived from the martial arts, with movements that are considered a cross between yoga and meditation. Practicing it usually strengthens the legs, increases muscle tone and improves balance.

Li and his team enrolled 72 seniors between the ages of 65 and 96 into the study. One group attended an hour-long class twice a week. Others were promised a four-week class at the end of the six-month study. All participants were considered healthy, but were physically inactive at the beginning.

"After six months of twice-a-week Tai Chi, participants reported improvement across several physical functional measures, including daily activities such as carrying groceries or moving furniture and moderate-vigorous activities, such as walking uphill, lifting weights, climbing stairs and running," says Li.

"This is incredibly promising for many reasons," says Marcia Ory, chief of behavioral medicine and public health at the National Institute on Aging.

"Tai Chi is important because it teaches you certain exercises, which give you balance, improve functioning and increase strength. And it's something that people can do in a group, or on their own. We've found people are more likely to follow through if they can do the exercise at home by themselves," Ory says.

What's really important, Ory adds: "It gets people feeling more confident about their mobility."

And, she says, with increased functioning, "these people can walk more, they can visit and be with their families, take a walk with the grandkids."

One limitation of the study, researchers point out, is the recruited volunteers may have been more motivated than other sedentary seniors. Also, because the improvements were self-reported, Li says, "more objective performance tests would strengthen the findings."

Yet, Li highly recommends Tai Chi, especially for the older generation. "It is particularly useful for elderly populations because it is slow-moving, noncompetitive, can be done in the privacy of one's home or in classes, requires a good deal of self control and needs no special equipment or clothing."

Ory agrees. The hard part, she says, is the motivation. "If you see results quickly, you're motivated to continue. And, in this study, "not one person got hurt or got an injury."

The study is published in the current issue of Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

What To Do

As with any exercise program, start slowly, says Ory, and look for a certified instructor in your area. Ory adds, "You're never too old, too frail, and it's fun."

Here's a place to learn more about Tai Chi.

Get started on your exercise program, with these tips from the National Institute on Aging.

For more HealthScout stories on benefits of exercise for the elderly, click here.

SOURCES: Interviews with Fuzhong Li, Ph.D, lead author, research scientist, Oregon Research Institute; Marcia Ory, Ph.D., chief of behavioral medicine and public health, National Institute on Aging
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